Saturday, May 28, 2005

East Fork of the NFNFAR

Friday morning I zoomed up to Emigrant Gap and Forest Road 19, destination, the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River.

Hereinafter called the East Fork.

This FR 19 is an old road, having been used by the Towle Brothers Lumber Company in the 1890s to haul sawn lumber cut at Burnett Canyon and Texas Hill out to Emigrant Gap and the railroad. Giant steam tractors were used. The wonderland of old-growth trees swiftly disappeared.

In those days, narrow-gauge railroads were an important part of timbering operations. Dutch Flat's Towle Bros. had a large Chinese road gang which made the little bench cuts and built the trestles needed for their narrow-gauge railroad. In 1902 Towle Bros. sold to Read Lumber Co. of Oregon, who continued in the same area using the same methods. The Smarts and other lumbering families of Old Placer also had timber operations in the area served by Forest Road 19. Most all used narrow-gauge railroads.

There is a persistent legend of a "lost locomotive" somewhere back in those forested canyons near FR 19.

So, there are many old narrow-gauge railroad roadbeds wandering through the woods in that area, south and east of Emigrant Gap. These vary from main lines to ad hoc, very temporary railroads, driven as low as possible into some valley so as to command all the slopes above. Logs were rolled carefully and directly downhill onto the flat cars. I have an old photograph showing this method.

Everything was set up to minimize labor; the roadcuts were narrow, as the gauge was narrow, and gravity was always an ally in yarding logs. Rarely if ever were logs yarded uphill. At the Towle Bros. Burnett Canyon Mill, a steep railed "incline" was run directly down into Burnett, with a fixed steam engine on top. Again, flat cars were loaded down in the canyon, and yarded up the incline.

I had very little time, my son getting out of school at noon, so I arrived at the East Fork, around seven paved miles in from Emigrant Gap and I-80, by around 8:30 a.m.

It was already warm. I had noted many car-campers aswarm in the woods; a large party had set up just across the bridge, on the left bank. Memorial Day weekend had started a day early for some. I drove past and parked at the first available spot, where the road switched up and northeast.

This is an interesting little part of Placer County. The East Fork heads up on Quartz Mountain, nearly 7000'--so there is snow, deep snow, at the headwaters, right now--, and a few hundred yards above the bridge on FR 19, Monumental Creek enters from the north. One perhaps has noticed that there is a "Monumental Creek" and a "Monumental Ridge" and, well, once there was a mining camp known as "Monumental Camp."

And what is this "monument" for which these things are named? What is so "monumental" about anything in these deep and dark and piney woods laced with crystal streams? The trees, perhaps. Once upon a time the genuine giants grew here. Eight-foot-diameter Sugar Pines.

About a hundred and fifty feet up Monumental Creek from the East Fork, there is a tall thin spire of rock, rising from the creek itself. Other pinnacles nearby make a kind of family of rock spires; but the one rising from the creek is the tallest and the thinnest and most impressive, and, it is, it must be, The Monument for which all those things were named.

In the meanwhile, the old Bradley & Gardner "Placer County Canal" winds through this exact area, having had its very beginning just a little ways up the East Fork, above The Monument. This rather large ditch diverted water for the hydraulic mines at Dutch Flat. It followed a very long and complicated course, winding in and out of many canyons.

I myself aimed southwest, away from these things, and clambered through many fallen trees in a nice patch of heavy timber about 100' above the East Fork. I was in effect skirting the base of the northwest face of Texas Hill, a thousand feet above. A faint trail began to appear, along with some old fire-rings. An old fishermen's trail? Could be.

But almost immediately it assumed the character of a remarkably flat and narrow road.

It was, in fact, one of the old narrow-gauge roadbeds in the area. I followed it and noted a steady gentle climb, rising higher and higher above the East Fork, which flowed southwest. This suited me, for I wished to get a look at a certain knoll or hill of some kind, adjacent to the East Fork, about a mile down the canyon from the bridge. Elevation, 4588'.

I call it Blade Knoll, or Blade Dome. It forms a narrow crest of rock which rises into little spires and knife-edge ridges, and stands about 400' above some waterfalls, several in turn, on the East Fork. I had seen it on the topographic maps for years and wanted to visit it. Today was the time.

A rock outcrop was met, and the roadbed narrowed to a trail and wandered off-grade briefly before the rocks were passed and it expanded to full size and resumed its proper grade again. Apparently, some trestling had once bridged the rocky area.

At some places, large dry-laid stone walls held up the roadbed. The country rock is all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, with a preponderance of metasandstones, and some light grey chert.

Then horror struck: the mossy old road passed onto private property, in the SW 1/4 of Section 17, T16N, R12E, and the canyon wall dissolved into a medley of skid trails, large and small. No attempt had been made to preserve the historic narrow-gauge roadbed; instead, it was obliterated. The logging looked to be about ten or fifteen years old, but I am unsure, it may have been more recent. When a heavy bulldozer pulls heavy logs around on a steep canyon wall like that, mantled with often deep and moist soils developed upon glacial till, well--a dozer grinds a channel several feet deep, in such a place.

Here the skid trails often had cut banks six feet high on the uphill sides. Very much raw subsoil remained exposed to erosion, despite the passage of years; this modern, bulldozer-oriented mode of logging leaves scars which will stand the test of centuries.

I struggled across a couple hundred yards of this nightmarish logging before I caught sight of my narrow-gauge roadbed again, a bit above me. I climbed to it and it was more or less intact before passing into Forest Service land again, where it was pristine.

Some blue flagging with black bars suggested that a TNF archeologist had surveyed it in recent years.

I wandered along west, trying but failing to catch a glimpse of my destination knoll; I was now well above the East Fork. Yet it spoke all the louder and I guessed waterfalls were below.

Another patch of private property was met (Section 19), and once again the narrow-gauge roadbed had been obliterated, in this case, by a wide bulldozed road. And this wide new road was overgrown with young Douglas Fir of about ten years' age. Impenetrably overgrown!

Oh, well, I had seen that bears used the railroad I had been following, and they continued right along into the thicket of small trees, but not much of a path remained. I struggled into the knotted problem for a hundred yards or so and then retreated.

There was still no sign of my Blade Dome. I was more than a mile southwest from the bridge, where I'd parked; hence I could only have passed it without seeing it. To be able to exclude the possibility that it was directly below me, I started zigzagging down the canyon wall, aiming towards those waterfall sounds. One east-running zag brought me in view of Blade Dome. It reared a couple hundred feet above me into a sharp matterhorn, springing from a long crest of grey rock.

The summit beckoned but first--the falls? I continued downslope far enough to realize that I was still hundreds of feet above the river, and time grew short. So back to Blade Dome I went, climbing to the valley-pass which separates it from the main canyon wall, and then up through masses of stunted Canyon Live Oak and manzanita to the summit ridge.

Here a bear trail was followed along the crest to the little matterhorn. I began to have glimpses of several waterfalls, generating clouds of mist, at the west base of Blade Dome. The crest narrows to a two-foot-wide strip out there at the west end of the summit ridge. Great views, all the way down the East Fork, the NFNFAR, and the main canyon, to and through Giant Gap.

During the last, "Tioga" glaciation, which ended about 12,000 years ago, very much ice from the South Yuba ice field broke away south into the North Fork. Some of this overflow ice went right over the top of Quartz Mountain (the summit is a patch of Shoo Fly Complex chert) and down the East Fork.

If the country rock in the East Fork had been granite, we'd have a bit more in the way of exposed glacially polished rock, and probably some granite domes here and there. But these Shoo Fly rocks, with their often slaty texture and foliation, are more likely to end up mired in glacial till, rather than forming broad exposures. Still, this little Blade Dome counts as the Shoo Fly equivalent of the granite domes we see so often in glaciated parts of the Sierra. Across the East Fork are some impressive cliffs, obviously planed back flat by East Fork ice.

It is not the hardness of the rock--Shoo Fly chert would win in a scratching war against granite, every time--but its massiveness, which determines its resistance to glacial erosion. Granite is more massive than chert and metasandstone; freer from joints and foliations and discontinuities in structure which allow ice to pluck and grab and generally tear things up.

It is not so very clear that this East Fork area is glacial topography. The many canyons are most often "V-shaped," not "U-shaped" as one is taught to expect from a glacially-carved canyon.

My time had run out so I beat a hasty retreat up the East Fork canyon to Forest Road 19.

It was a nice day of exploration, and more is needed--those waterfalls should be quite nice to visit--but I am reminded of the rapacity of Sierra Pacific Industries, and of how important it is for Tahoe National Forest to acquire the private inholdings in this area.

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